Santoro: Pack carved out historic season the old-fashioned way

Nevada's Tre Coleman (4) looks for an open teammate as UNLV's Kallib Boone defends during their Saturday night game at Lawlor Events Center.

Nevada's Tre Coleman (4) looks for an open teammate as UNLV's Kallib Boone defends during their Saturday night game at Lawlor Events Center.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

Sports Fodder:

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team this season was built the old-fashioned way, with coaching, hard work, dedication and, most of all, a belief in each other. Yes, clichés and not the transfer portal and NIL dollars, are the only true path to success in college sports.

The Pack, which lost starting center Will Baker and Mountain West Freshman of the Year Darrion Williams to the transfer portal after last season, didn’t simply throw money at the problem. They didn’t open up their fragile and barren NIL vault, go shopping and buy the fanciest new toys they could afford in an effort to replace Williams and Baker. They simply looked the players remaining on the roster in the eye, challenged them and then went out and coached them up.

The Pack, which won 22 games last year and went to the NCAA Tournament, never really replaced Baker and Williams. Head coach Steve Alford simply closed ranks, wished Baker and Williams well and thanked them for their service, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.

Alford showed each player left on the roster he believed in them. The Pack’s five starters (Jarod Lucas, Kenan Blackshear, Nick Davidson, K.J. Hymes, Tre Coleman) and top two players off the bench (Daniel Foster, Hunter McIntosh) this season were all on the roster last season.

Two of the Pack’s older brothers left the family home and the other brothers simply moved into their vacated bedrooms. The result so far is 26 wins in the regular season and a second-place finish in the Mountain West with the conference and NCAA tournaments coming this week and next.

Despite what you’ve heard and read, money isn’t the answer to all of college basketball’s problems.


Baker, now at LSU, and Williams, now at Texas Tech, had solid seasons with their new teams. Baker averaged 11.4 points and 5.0 rebounds for the 17-14, 9-9 Tigers in the SEC while Williams averaged 11.6 points and 7.6 rebounds for the 22-9, 11-7 Red Raiders in the Big 12.

They are, as the Pack knew firsthand, both quality players who can help any team win. But their absence this year opened up new opportunities for growth and success for the players left behind on the Pack roster.

Davidson, it seems, benefited the most. He stepped into the starting lineup for Williams and saw his minutes increase by 11 a game this year. The sophomore blossomed into one of the more productive big men in the Mountain West, averaging 12.2 points and 7.3 rebounds. That likely wouldn’t have happened if Baker and Williams were still eating up shots, rebounds and 50-plus minutes a game combined.

Foster stepped into the minutes void left by Williams and Baker and saw his playing time increase from 13.7 minutes in 2022-23 to 22.6 this year. He, too, has blossomed into arguably the best sixth man in the league this year.

K.J. Hymes has stepped into the starting lineup for Baker and has played 16 minutes a game this year. Hymes isn’t anywhere near the player Baker was for the Pack but the sixth-year center, together with Foster, has more than filled Baker’s absence.

The Pack also lost two other players (Tyler Powell, Trey Pettigrew) off last year’s roster. Powell and Pettigrew combined to play 20.5 minutes a game and average 5.3 points and 2.6 rebounds a game last year. Their absence opened up minutes for guards Tyler Rolison and Hunter McIntosh off the bench. Rolison and McIntosh have combined to play 30 minutes a game this year and average 9.8 points and 2.7 rebounds. It was McIntosh who filled in for an injured Blackshear last week for two games and the Pack didn’t miss a beat.


Baker and Williams combined to score 21.3 points and pull down 12.5 rebounds a game for the 2022-23 Wolf Pack. How did the Pack actually improve this season without truly replacing either of them on the roster with a new face?

The top seven players on the roster (based on minutes played) all improved their production over a year ago. That’s how.

Davidson, who came off the bench in 2022-23, improved his scoring by 5.3 points and pulled down 3.2 more rebounds this year. Hymes, who basically missed all of 2022-23, added 5.8 points and 3.0 rebounds this year. Foster increased his scoring by 2.8 points (to 4.3) and added 2.6 rebounds (to 4.5) a game this year. The improvements of Davidson, Hymes and Foster combined are 13.9 points and 8.8 rebounds.

The other three starters (Lucas, Coleman and Blackshear) and McIntosh (who played just six games last year) also bumped up their production this year a combined 10.0 points and 3.0 rebounds.

The improvements of the top seven players on the roster this year over last year, therefore, adds up to a combined 23.9 points and 11.8 rebounds a game. That’s basically what Baker and Washington produced together the year before.

And it didn’t cost the Pack one cent of NIL money.


This Wolf Pack team simply bonded into a well-oiled machine this year because Alford believed in them. The only new faces who seem to have a meaningful role heading into the postseason are freshman guard Tyler Rolison and Tulane transfer forward Tylan Pope.

Rolison plays just 13 minutes a game and Pope has played just nine minutes a game. Pope, who has been injured twice this year, has played in just 19 games this year. The other new faces (Jazz Gardner, Jeriah Coleman, Amire Robinson) will only get off the bench in the postseason if things go terribly wrong or incredibly well.

Alford’s faith in his players, especially those who didn’t jump ship in the transfer portal after last year, speaks to how this team plays a selfless, team-first, stick-to-the-game-plan, work-your-tail-off brand of basketball. Their whole is clearly greater than the sum of their parts.

This is one of the most unselfish teams in Wolf Pack history, certainly the most unselfish since Alford came to town in 2019-20. It’s doubtful the Pack would have 26 wins right now and be firmly on a path to a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament if Alford brought in two mercenaries to help alleviate the loss of Baker and Williams. Alford believed in his players, and they were inspired to pay him back for that belief.


The Wolf Pack should not have any problem winning its first Mountain West Tournament game on Thursday against either San Jose State or (more likely) Colorado State.

If the Pack loses on Thursday, well, it will mean the team that prided itself on hard work, focus and discipline, simply lost focus and tried to be something it is not.

It would be one of the more surprising losses in school history. But it has happened before. See the loss to Boise State at Lawlor Events Center in the 2005 Western Athletic Conference tournament. Alford’s 19-win Pack of 2019-20 lost to 11th-seeded Wyoming in the Mountain West tournament after winning six of its last seven regular-season games.

Stuff happens in college sports.

Make no mistake, the Mountain West Tournament will be a grind for the team that ends up winning it. It might be the most competitive conference tournament in the country this year.

There are six teams in the league already with 22-plus wins and all six believe they have already clinched an NCAA Tournament bid. Another, UNLV at 19 wins, is one of the hottest teams in the league and will have the home court advantage this week.

We could be looking at the toughest, most difficult Mountain West Tournament to win in history (since 2000). The winner will head into the NCAA Tournament certainly battle-tested and confident but also exhausted, mentally and physically.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment